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The Legend of King Canute


King Canute is not to be confused with the real King Cnut, the much-misunderstood 11th century Viking leader and King of England. Many attempts have been made to correct the legend which has grown up around him, for example here, here and here. But legends about historical figures (compare the unlikely story about King Alfred burning the woman’s cakes) are sometimes more interesting than the real thing. According to the version of the legend I need for this post,

“Canute is famous for the tale of the incoming tide. According to legend, Canute’s courtiers flattered him into believing that his word was so powerful that even the tide would recede at his command. Canute is said to have taken this compliment literally and had his throne placed by the shore and vainly attempted to command the waves to recede until he almost drowned.”

The reality in which King Canute lived, and the reality experienced by all others in his realm, bore little relation to each other. I expect you can see where I am going with this – I am inescapably reminded of the present Archbishop of Canterbury, about whom I have recently been accused  of being ‘waspish‘.  (I think this is fair comment, but can only plead that his plans to introduce central command and control into my beloved Church of England make me very cross indeed. His Ninja Nuns form such a tight circle around him that I would have no chance of punching him on the nose, and it is not really my style. Waspishness is the weapon of the weak and I have no other tools at my disposal).

The comparison to King Canute has been occasioned by Archbishop Rowan’s Advent letter to the other Primates of the Anglican Communion. Paragraph 7 reads as follows (the bolding is mine):

This of course relates also to the continuing discussion of the Anglican Covenant. How it is discussed, the timescale of discussion and the means by which decisions are reached will vary a lot from Province to Province. We hope to see a full report of progress at next year’s Anglican Consultative Council (ACC) meeting. In spite of many assurances, some Anglicans evidently still think that the Covenant changes the structure of our Communion or that it gives some sort of absolute power of ‘excommunication’ to some undemocratic or unrepresentative body. With all respect to those who have raised these concerns, I must repeat that I do not see the Covenant in this light at all. It sets out an understanding of our common life and common faith and in the light of that proposes making a mutual promise to consult and attend to each other, freely undertaken. It recognizes that not doing this damages our relations profoundly. It outlines a procedure, such as we urgently need, for attempting reconciliation and for indicating the sorts of consequences that might result from a failure to be fully reconciled. It alters no Province’s constitution, as it has no canonical force independent of the life of the Provinces. It does not create some unaccountable and remote new authority but seeks to identify a representative group that might exercise a crucial advisory function. I continue to ask what alternatives there are if we want to agree on ways of limiting damage, managing conflict and facing with honesty the actual effects of greater disunity. In the absence of such alternatives, I must continue to commend the Covenant as strongly as I can to all who are considering its future.

I have highlighted the sentence which makes me think that Archbishop Rowan and I are living on different planets. Both Canon Alan Perry and the Revd Malcolm have already written in detail and with conviction about the oddities of this letter and I urge you to read their blog posts. But the sentence in bold type represents a view of reality which I find incomprehensible. How can 5,123 words possibly change the longstanding differences in the way we (each Province in the Communion) hold our forks, say tomayto or tomahto, elect or appoint our bishops and believe that there should be three or four orders of priesthood?  We should not even be trying to make ourselves all identical. We should instead be reminding each other that, while our Anglican neighbours may have motes in their eyes, we very probably have beams in our own.

Can it be that Archbishop Rowan is suffering from ‘courtier-itis’? It happened to Margaret Thatcher after she had been in office for a while, and it happened to Indira Gandhi. It has certainly happened to any number of tinpot dictators around the world. The version of reality that reaches rulers is sifted by courtiers and lacks the salty tang of the world encountered by the rest of us. Sometimes the ruler views life from another planet as a result, and at the very least he or she may develop astigmatism.

19 comments on this post:

Erika Baker said...

Well said!

We shouldn’t even want to make ourselves all identical!

Just one aside question… I had always thought King Canute shouted at the waves to prove to the others the folly of their belief in him, not because he genuinely thought he could command them?

Lay Anglicana said...

Thank-you Erika!
The version of the Canute legend I give here is the one I was brought up on, but your version seems to be the most (but not universally) accepted one – I give hyperlinks to four different versions of historical fact including the one that says the reverse of mine, ie that he was trying to prove how sycophantic his courtiers were being.We shall probably never know the truth, but modern historians seem to think neither version was true!

09 December 2011 21:11
09 December 2011 19:35
Sue said...

“It sets out an understanding of our common life and common faith and in the light of that proposes making a mutual promise to consult and attend to each other, freely undertaken. It recognizes that not doing this damages our relations profoundly.”

I think that the bit in the paragraph above worried me most. It was the comment about how not making mutual promises (or perhaps just not signing the Covenant?) will “damage our relations profoundly.” It worries me because it sounds a bit like a threat. But then, that is what the Covenant is about, isn’t it?

Lay Anglicana said...

It does indeed sound like a threat, Sue. To me it also sounds distinctly Orwellian: if you read enough of what Archbishop Rowan has said about the Covenant in recent times, you begin to doubt your own sanity as words are used in the opposite sense of the way we usually understand them.
Thank-you for taking the time to comment.

09 December 2011 21:21
09 December 2011 19:37
Alan Wilson said...

I observe that the real conversations Anglicans have together when they actually engage personally is usually very enlightening and positive. So I’ve got an idea.

Instead of saddling everyone than a portentious but vapid historical statement of the bleeding obvious drawn up by lawyers with a sting in the tail, why not just get everyone internet connections so that they can actually talk TO each other rather than ABOUT each other behind everyone else’s back? Less bother? More Effective?

Lay Anglicana said...

Brilliant idea, Bishop Alan! I’ll pass the hat round to start collecting for Internet For All and you work out the logistics of distribution etc? Deal?!

Erika Baker said...

The difficulty with Alan’s suggestion is that it depends on people who are willing to engage, to listen and to change their minds.
That’s not as common as one might hope, even in the Anglican blosphere. There are some very poisonous blogs around.

If people were genuinely willing to engage we wouldn’t be having this conversation in the first place.

Grandmère Mimi said...

The indaba groups seem to be doing a pretty good job of it, but there are too few of them, and not enough people are involved.

Sadly, enforced listening is no more possible than forcing the bonds of affection, as the proposed Anglican Covenant suggests.

09 December 2011 23:21
09 December 2011 22:35
09 December 2011 22:07
09 December 2011 21:56
UKViewer said...

I suspect that Bishop Alan’s is one suggestion that the church won’t be taking up any time soon. Talking to each other in small, rarified groups seems to be the norm.

Rule by committee or conference, dominated by those who have a vested interest in the covenant being signed – as they see it as their power base for their future operations against all who do not agree with them.

I actually think that the ABC must be between a rock and a hard place – walking the tight rope between both extremes, but leaning perilously close to the right extreme, without any real conviction that falling in that direction would not hurt the whole communion, not just the CofE.

I wonder if the ‘inner circle’ are hovering like vultures, to leap onto his corpse, if he were to actually say that the covenant is a mechanism for the creation of an regime which will rule by decree, not consent. Prayer for him in his dilemma seems appropriate

No to the Covenant seems the only right response.

Lay Anglicana said...

I do pray for Archbishop Rowan and the rest of the church – I think at the moment it is the most important of our intercessionary prayers.

You may remember we were told by a priest on the intercessions thread on our forum that we should not pray so much for church officials as they are the most prayed-for section of the community. But it seems to me that we were right in the first place – they need all the prayer they can get!

12 December 2011 05:08
09 December 2011 22:31
Grandmère Mimi said...

A couple of quotes stand out to me.

In addition to a number of strong statements in defence of various Christian communities in situations of suffering and stress, and a very clear commitment to work together on issues of gender-based violence…

But, sadly, the Primates made no public commitment to work on violence based on sexual orientation.

And the other:

Throughout the time of my service as Archbishop I have tried to keep before my own eyes and those of the Communion the warnings given by St Paul about the risks of saying ‘I have no need of you’ to any other who seeks to serve Jesus Christ as a member of His Body.

Although Rowan didn’t say the actual words, his many scoldings and expressions of disapproval caused us in the Episcopal Church in the US to think that perhaps he had no need of us.

Lay Anglicana said...

Thank-you, Grandmère Mimi, for commenting. Both of your reflections are sad indeed.
It is small comfort, but he has -unintentionally- also done much to promote unity within the Communion, amongst people who are opposed to the Covenant!

12 December 2011 05:12
09 December 2011 23:01

Clear as a bell:

Dr. Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury endorses (forces?) the Anglican Covenant down Church of England diocese synod votes…please never forget the threatening words of ++Drexel Gomez (of the Province of the West Indies/LGBT blood drenched Jamaica) and chairperson of the ¨covenant design group¨ who clearly states

Will provide ¨Mechanisms¨ for ¨Determining Violations¨ and ¨Removals¨…let the tide come in.

09 December 2011 23:42
Dev said...

I find it very tiresome that Rowan continues to promote this as something that will “do nothing” when we all know better because the language even of his own words suggests that it will address the “damage” done to our communion by god-knows-what next time. If the covenant changes nothing, then I so lets stick with not doing anything.

Lay Anglicana said...

Thank-you Dev, for this comment. You are so right, and I cannot help my gut reaction when told that we should sign on the dotted line which is that I am being cajoled by a soft-soap insurance salesman who doesn’t want us to read the fine print!

12 December 2011 05:02
09 December 2011 23:46
Muthah+ said...

While people see what is going on in the US on TV, people around the world think that is what living in the US is like. It isn’t! Those of us who profess Christ range from the idiocy of Rick Perry to a very steady, anti-materialistic Gospel that wants desperatly to embrace the needs of the world and try to do something about them.

If I were to think that Thatcher was the sole experience of being from the UK, I would suggest that the Anglican Communion is hogwash.

This is where the Anglican Communion is such a boon to the whole of Christianity. We are the only denomination which CAN sustain differences and have for almost 500 years. I agree with Bishop Alan–it is in those quiet moments when we can share our faith that we are the best. And this whole schism has demanded our best–not some vapid attempt to bully us back into agreement. It is part and parcel of us as Anglicans to disagree but to do so respecting the Christ that is in each one of us. The sad part is that there are those who have left the table thinking that they can manipulate the whole. If there are those who must leave in order for them to know Christ–so be it. But let’s not throw the Incarnation out with the Anglican bathwater. The ABC needs to recenter on what it is that holds us together–not what breaks us apart.

Lay Anglicana said...

Thank-you, Muthah+ – there is so much wisdom in all that you say. But your central point that Anglicanism is the only denomination which CAN sustain differences, and has done so for 500 years, needs to be shouted from the roof tops – I do not think it has been said enough that our kind of alliance needs to allow room for squabbles rather than pretend they do not exist, just as one does in family life.

12 December 2011 04:57
10 December 2011 02:26
Jacob Theunisz said...

I am usually (and still) critical of the Anglican Covenant, but I must point out that strictly speaking the ABC does not write about trying to become identical, but about preventing greater disunity than there already is. Which seems to suggest that the current level of disunity is acceptable to him, but that he fears more of it. Where it becomes interesting is when he says he is open to alternatives, but hasn’t received any. This is not a surprise, since once cannot limit damage which has already been done. And an alternative to managing conflict has already been provided by the Bible. Also if the Covenant is just “an understanding” then it means all other understandings are alternatives, and there would be no particular one brilliant enough to make him change his mind. Finally, two things are mixed up, namely the “proposal to make a mutual promise” and the mutual promise itself, which is hardly a promise if it is at the same time a demand. According to a friend of mine it is typically male to think ones solution must be right, just because the partner cannot quickly come up with an alternative. Perhaps no action is needed. So let the ABC and all of us do what the intention of the Covenant claims to be: genuinely listen to each other. There is no replacement for that simple principle.

Lay Anglicana said...

Thank-you, Jacob, for commenting.
You are right of course that it is not Archbishop Rowan who is behind the idea that all Anglicans should be identical. (My ‘shorthand’ is at fault, I think, in that I was really referring back to the original complaints in Archbishop Carey’s time from Anglican Provinces in Africa that The Episcopal Church was taking a different view of what it meant to be Anglicans from their own. I remain of the view that the answer to these Provinces should have been along mote/beam lines – as provided for in the Chicago Lambeth Quadrilateral – rather than setting off on the journey through the Windsor Report etc that has brought us to the current draft of the Covenant).

Having got that out of the way, as it were, I do congratulate you on the succinctness of your comment, which brilliantly sums up other aspects of the Covenant which I had not touched on.

“…genuinely listen to each other. There is no replacement for that simple principle”. Amen to that!

12 December 2011 04:48
11 December 2011 21:52

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